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Outside Money And Volunteers Pouring Into Georgia Special Election

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A big, special election this week in the Atlanta suburbs could be a guide for how Republicans and Democrats approach the 2018 midterms. The seat opened up when Tom Price became secretary of Health and Human Services. It's been controlled by Republicans for nearly four decades, but it's the kind of wealthy, well-educated district Democrats think they might flip. As Johnny Kauffman from member station WABE reports, outside money and volunteers are pouring into the race.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On your sheet you'll see some boxes you can check for the other candidates. They're...

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Every few minutes, volunteers come through the door at this field office for Jon Ossoff. The 30-year-old former congressional staffer is the leading Democratic candidate in the race. An Ossoff campaign worker trains a few people before they head out to knock on doors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So if someone is supportive of Jon, we want to remind them how easy it is to vote in this election.

KAUFFMAN: There are volunteers here from around the country. Jordan DeLoatch wrote an overnight bus from North Carolina that the Ossoff campaign chartered.

JORDAN DELOATCH: We got in OK, checked into our hotels around 2, and I got up this morning ready to work.

KAUFFMAN: The campaign is also bringing busloads of volunteers from the Washington D.C. area, Michigan and New York. DeLoatch says volunteers want to fight back against President Trump and the Republican Congress.

DELOATCH: It's kind of the first chance to really send a message.

KAUFFMAN: Laura Phipps, another volunteer, brought her son along from North Carolina. Phipps says reading the news makes her stomach turn.

LAURA PHIPPS: It's much less frustrating when you're working, when you're doing something.

KAUFFMAN: There are five Democrats and 11 Republicans in this race. If no candidate from either party gets 50 percent, there will be a runoff election in June. Democrats are hopeful because Trump didn't do as well here as previous GOP presidential candidates.

(CROSSTALK)

KAUFFMAN: At a strip mall, Republican volunteers and a few party staffers are making lots of phone calls.

CAROLYN HALL FISHER: They're after us.

KAUFFMAN: Carolyn Hall Fisher is a lifelong Republican.

FISHER: I am very, very concerned about this district, Tom Price's district. We cannot, cannot let it go blue. It's got to go red.

KAUFFMAN: Hall Fisher and the other callers here aren't supporting an individual candidate. Instead, they're just trying to get as many Republican voters to the polls to stop Ossoff from winning outright. Republican groups have pumped at least $4 million into the race, much of it on attack ads like this one from a superPAC that features clips of protesters vandalizing cars and storefronts.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Liberal extremists will stop at nothing to push their radical agenda. Now they're turning their attention to Georgia and demanding that you vote for Jon Ossoff for Congress.

KAUFFMAN: Ossoff's campaign has plenty of money to respond. It's raised more than $8 million. That's more money than almost any House candidate in history. Much of it has come from out-of-state liberal donors giving money online.

MOLLY MARTIN: Because I'm absolutely terrified of what this administration is going to do to our country.

KAUFFMAN: Molly Martin teaches at a community college in San Francisco. A friend told her about Ossoff, and she donated $30 to his campaign. But all of this out-of-state support has motivated some Republican voters like Gary Bailey. He voted early for the leading Republican in the race, Karen Handel.

GARY BAILEY: I mean, it's our district, our election, and they're down here trying to influence it.

KAUFFMAN: Republicans say they're confident that they'll keep control of the seat. But all the money and energy in this race shows that nobody thinks it's a sure thing. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "NORD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.